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Last week’s game between Barcelona and Napoli at the Camp Nou was the first that the Catalan outfit had contested in the Europa League in 18 years. Barcelona, to be clear, would rather not be here. They are used to competing in the knockout phase of the Champions League at this stage of the season. Winners of Europe’s premier competition in 1992, 2006, 2009, 2011 and 2015, they were not even good enough to reach the round of 16 this time around.
The fallout from Barcelona’s third-place finish in the group stage is now firmly in the past, however. Xavi Hernandez might prefer to be elsewhere, but the Europa League does provide him with a chance to win silverware in his debut campaign as the club’s manager. Barcelona would have hoped for a kinder draw than Napoli in this knockout round play-offs, but the La Liga giants will feel a place in the last 16 is well within reach despite their failure to emerge victorious last time out.
Napoli drew first blood at the Camp Nou last Thursday, with Piotr Zielinski firing home after his initial effort was kept out by Marc-Andre ter Stegen. Ferran Torres levelled the scores from the penalty spot on the hour mark, after Adama Traore’s cross was deemed to have struck the hand of Juan Jesus. In the end a 1-1 draw was a fair result, with neither team able to land a decisive blow on the night.
This tie is on a knife-edge ahead of the second leg, and that is reflected in the odds – Bet Caesars offer virtually the same price for a Napoli triumph as a Barcelona victory. Much like at the Camp Nou, there is unlikely to be much to choose between these two sides when they lock horns at the Stadio Armando Diego Maradona.
Barcelona struggled to get the balance right in the first few weeks of Xavi’s tenure. At times they had no trouble putting the ball in the back of the net, but that usually coincided with the defense giving up too many chances. On other occasions they successfully shut their opponents out, but it was in those matches when Barcelona most struggled to score. There have been tentative signs of late that the Blaugrana are beginning to bring both aspects together.
A big reason for that is the impact of their January additions, Torres, Traore and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Eyebrows were raised with regard to the signing of the latter duo in particular. Traore was hardly getting a game at Wolverhampton Wanderers, while Xavi had previously dismissed Aubameyang as too reliant on pace. Yet all three players have made a positive impression, with Aubameyang notching a hat-trick in the 4-1 thrashing of Valencia at the weekend.
Barcelona are not the finished article and it will take a few more transfer windows before they are ready to challenge for the biggest prizes again. But there is reason for optimism at the Camp Nou right now. Barcelona played some fantastic soccer at Mestalla on Saturday, and while the defense is still not overly convincing, Xavi’s side are clearly moving in the right direction.
The stands are set back from the pitch at the Stadio Armando Diego Maradona, which was renamed after the Argentine legend who played for both of these clubs after his death in 2020. But that does not prevent the Napoli faithful generating an almighty din, particularly under the floodlights. Luciano Spalletti will be hoping the raucous home crowd will have a big role to play on Thursday.
Napoli certainly have the quality to cause Barcelona problems. They have denied Juventus and Inter victory in Serie A in recent weeks, as well as avoiding defeat by the Blaugrana last week. That illustrates the fact that Luciano Spalletti’s side are a tough nut to crack.
At the same time, Barcelona will be full of confidence after their demolition of Valencia. In terms of tactics, playing away from home might even suit them. Torres, Traore and Aubameyang are all blessed with searing speed. Napoli will look to play on the front foot in front of their own fans, and that could leave space for Barcelona to counter-attack into. If this becomes a game of transitions, the Catalans look well placed to triumph.
We envisage this being another close encounter; there might only be one goal in it after 180 minutes of action between these two. On balance, though, we would recommend backing Barcelona to get the job done.
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|Napoli vs Barcelona Information
|Napoli vs Barcelona
|Stadio Diego Armando Maradona, Naples, Italy
|Thursday, 24 February 2022, 15.00 PM EST
|How to watch
Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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